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My 4-step plan for non-fiction book writing
How to make the hardest part of the process less painful
When I was working on my first book, The Signal and the Noise, I‘d dread when people asked me about my writing process. That’s because it wasn’t the kind of thing you’d want to try at home. I would literally aim to work myself up into a frenzied, Red Bull-infused manic state, with 8- or 10- or 14-hour writing sessions, sometimes lasting all night.
For my new book, I’m trying something different. The book has taken most of my work time lately and — apart from a couple of trips out to the World Series of Poker (some things are non-negotiable even when you’re on a deadline! 🎲) — it will also take most of the next few months. But I’ve really been enjoying the writing process, much more than I did for Signal.
Part of the change is out of necessity. At age 45, I require more work-life balance than I once did.1 But also, my previous strategy sort of sucked. Although Signal turned out well in the end (at least I’d like to think so) the process wasn’t very efficient. There were too many times when one of the following happened:
I’d have a successful manic writing session, but at the cost of being physically and mentally exhausted and getting nothing done the next day;
I’d have what I’d thought was a successful manic writing session, but the copy went too far down a rabbit hole and required very heavy revisions;
I wasn’t “feeling it”, felt guilty about it, and faced with a lot of unstructured time, procrastinated for the entire day.
So this was — at best — a low-on-base-percentage, high-slugging-average strategy. I’d hit the occasional home run but with little consistency. And the thing about a non-fiction book is that consistency is the name of the game.
Let’s do some math. During a productive writing session, I can write between (rough guess) 400 and 1,200 solid words per hour depending on how dense the material is. Let’s just take the average and say 800. And let’s say I’m writing a 100,000-word book.2 Take 100,000 words, divide them by 800 words per hour, and that’s only 125 hours!
Only 125 hours? Writing a book is easy!
Well, no. Not for me it isn’t. This calculation is grossly misleading because it neglects the planning process, the research process — which for this book has required a lot of fun but time-consuming travel and on-the-ground reporting — and the editing process. Oh, and the countless hours when I’m not officially “on the clock” but have been haunted by the spectral outlines of the book rattling around in my head. It also neglects the days I’ve set aside time to write and haven’t been very productive. (There are still some of those despite the process that I’ll outline below.) So these 125 hours are a small fraction of the workload.
However, they’re where much of the variance comes in. Getting that first draft done — at least for me — is the most intimidating part of working on a book. And like for almost no other task I’ve experienced, the difference between a productive day and an unproductive day spent on a first draft is enormous. (The unproductive days can sometimes even be worse than nothing because you’ll become attached to copy that isn’t worth salvaging.)
So here’s my not-quite-foolproof but relatively reliable (so far: knock on wood) strategy for having a productive first-draft writing day. Required ingredients: I’m assuming your notes are in some fairly well-organized state, and that you’ve made some effort to outline the material.3 I’m also assuming you’ve been able to set aside much of your workday with relatively few interruptions, though this plan permits for some flexibility.
Step 1: Review notes and research material, make a high-level outline or battle plan for what you’re going to write later (30-60 minutes).
Nothing revolutionary here. I’m just trying to ease you into the day. Maybe you’re looking for a little extra spark or two — a section of an interview that didn’t resonate with you originally but now fits perfectly into your narrative, a ChatGPT prompt that draws a connection you’d missed.
Step 2: Go do something physical, ideally something involving movement like running, walking, hiking or biking (30-90 minutes).
This is not a break from your process. It’s a part of the process. Writing is not the same thing as typing. If you’re like me, the real first draft is the one you write in your head and I find that easiest to do when moving around. If your research has gone well, then you’ll have built up an inventory of interesting raw material, which will be fresh in your memory after Step 1. My strategy for a book is that you basically want to turn your brain into a supercollider and see what happens when you randomly start smashing elements into one another. So I like activities such as walking or running because you’ll be exposed to a lot of random stimuli (especially in New York City) that you wouldn’t get if you were sitting still.
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Step 3: Revise what you wrote during your last writing session (30 minutes-2 hours).
This way you’ll “come in hot” to the new material you’re about to write. Also, these revisions are work that you’ll eventually need to do anyway — almost nobody writes a perfect first draft. So don’t sweat it if this step takes a little longer than you originally planned.
Step 4: Write new material (2-6 hours).
I’m not saying this step is easy. It’s the hard part. But that’s precisely why I’ve tired to ease you into it. If you’re following this plan, the transition between revising old material (Step 3) and writing new material (Step 4) will often be relatively seamless.
If you have meetings or appointments that day, strongly avoid scheduling them during Step 4. You can schedule them between Step 2 and Step 3, that’s fine — but Step 4 is where you really need uninterrupted time.
I’ve listed 2 hours as the minimum duration because it takes some time to get into your rhythm and the ramp-up process isn’t worth it if there isn’t some type of payoff. At the same time, you can’t get too precious about this. Life gets in the way and if you set your threshold as “I want a completely stress-free and uninterrupted day", you’ll usually find an excuse not to do any writing at all.
And I’ve listed 6 hours as the maximum for a few reasons. First, at some point you’ll want to get a fresh start, looping back around to Step 1. There are only so many ideas you can hold in your short-term memory before going back and reviewing your notes — long writing sessions can lead you down some cul-de-sacs. Also, the whole point of this strategy is to make Step 4 — the hardest part of writing a book — more palatable. The prospect of a marathon session can be intimidating. You want some reps where your brain says “hey, that wasn’t so bad; kind of fun, even”.
Look, none of this is meant to be too proscriptive. If you’ve gotten into a flow state when writing, then it’s sometimes worth going with it, cancelling dinner plans, etc. But intentionally trying to induce a flow state is not a sustainable strategy.
Whether it’s worth it to throw everything into your work for a brief period of your life is something that’s going to vary from person to person and situation to situation. I’d be a hypocrite to categorically recommend against it. But it can come at a high price in terms of burnout, health and personal relationships.
New book should be somewhere in that general vicinity.
I’ve never quite had the knack for how detailed to make my outlines. But something is still better than nothing.